President Obama and Congress now have just over seven weeks to reach an agreement on the federal budget that would avert a round of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts in defense and social programs that members of both parties have depicted as draconian.
Jan. 1 is the deadline set by the so-called “sequestration” law of 2010 that imposes substantial cuts automatically – over a ten-year period – if the government fails to whack away at the federal deficit. Front and center in the punishment will be the Defense Department, which accounts for a fifth of all federal spending and about a half of so-called “discretionary” funds, or those that lawmakers review and approve annually.
Fifty program areas at the Pentagon would collectively take a roughly $500 billion hit, which seems like a lot but would actually be less than ten percent of the $5.8 trillion that the Obama administration wants the Pentagon to spend from 2013 to 2021. Military leaders have complained fiercely, partly because the Obama administration last year chose to halt a planned 16 percent increase in defense spending, keeping the military’s budget essentially level after a decade of steep growth.
Only a few Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have said they want to cut defense programs deeply, but both parties agreed in the legislation to hold the military’s budget hostage to force a deal. The Democrats’ aim, in particular, was to force the Republicans to raise taxes on the wealthy by threatening to kill military programs that the party faithful traditionally cherish. The Republicans supported the deal because it pushed the issue beyond the election – now just concluded – and because they knew that a disagreement would also harm social programs that Democrats cherish.
Polls have repeatedly shown broad support for cutting the defense budget more deeply than the sequestration law would require, suggesting that many lawmakers are out of touch with popular opinion. In our poll, conducted in April with the Stimson Center and the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, both Republicans and Democrats favored substantial cuts in spending for the Army, nuclear arms, air power, missile defenses, and many other programs. A more recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs also showed broad public support, across party lines, for cutting the defense budget.
And the election itself – in which Obama won in California, Virginia, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, all states with considerable military spending – suggests that persistent Republican calls this year for much higher defense spending gained little to no traction with voters.